Board Insight

Artificial Intelligence (AI) – could this be a unique selling feature for Northern Devon? – by Tim jones

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We too often assume that the Northern Devon economy will struggle to punch at or above its weight because of poor infrastructure, lack of skills and distance to markets. Whilst this has been true in the past, technology is rapidly shrinking these barriers to growth. Indeed far from just catching up I would strongly advocate that this is our chance to get ahead.

We know we have to do better developing our skills and to offer greater opportunities for the generation we have raised. We also know that the coffers are empty in Whitehall thereby eliminating any chance for new money to redress old woes.

Artificial Intelligence is perhaps one of our greater opportunities to airbrush all these issues and help to unlock our full potential.

Why and How?

We already know that AI can bring unimaginable changes to the way we do things. It has been over two years since the launch of ChatGPT. In that time many businesses have learnt how to incorporate this into their working routines. The advantages are many such as cutting down on humans doing repetitive work, eliminating human error, performing risky tasks and 24×7 availability. Perhaps most dramatic is the access to information and the speeds within which this can be achieved. This allows huge amounts of complex data to be processed, analysed and made useable. Perhaps the best examples are the advances which are being achieved in medical research and healthcare.

Businesses right across our patch are also now routinely adopting AI systems to improve stock control, customer services, understanding market trends, delivering training, improving security, even preparing meeting notes, overcoming language barriers and answering the phone.

All of this can be invaluable by freeing up workers for higher skilled operations. The clever analysts are predicting that this will contribute nearly 10% to the global economy.

There are downside risks. Perhaps the greatest being fears that AI could result in the displacement of 300m jobs worldwide. A recent survey showed that 60% of employees who use AI at work are fearful of the impact on their jobs.

We must respect these fears. It is up to business owners to deploy AI systems in such a way that these are assisting workers to be more efficient and productive (leading to greater profitability). The concept of a “Co-bots” is rapidly being adopted as a way of working together with existing employees. The prediction is that each of us could have a personal AI assistant within the next 10 years (sorry Alexa, your time could be up).

So how can Northern Devon fill its boots with this?

The starting point must be skills. All the latest evidence indicates that having AI skills can greatly improve your job prospects, accelerate your career progression and boost your pay by up to 60%.

The accountancy firm PwC has just released its latest findings on this. Employers with specialist skills in AI can command a salary 14% higher than those lacking these attributes. They illustrate this with evidence that AI savvy lawyers are being offered salaries 27% higher than those without.

Also that database designers and administrators can command a premium of about 60% on their salary. The survey looked at international trends and found that half a billion job adverts across 15 countries require these skills. This has grown by 3.5 times in the last 5 years.

A further conclusion arising is evidence that, where this technology is integrated into the workplace, AI can bring about an “industrial revolution of knowledge work”. Rather than just doing the same old things faster, this is introducing new ways of working and creating new jobs thereby giving genuine hope that both improving our productivity gap and living standards are very achievable outcomes.

We need to tackle head-on the issues of winners and losers from such radical and disruptive changes. Some research suggests that up-to eight million UK jobs are at risk. Certain professions are more vulnerable such as insurance, banking, financial services generally. Also back-office, entry level and part-time jobs such as secretarial, customer services and administrative roles potentially meaning that women, young and older people could be most affected.

We should also not forget that some jobs cannot be done by robots. Take Yoga teachers, hair dressers or funeral directors for example.
I would argue that we have a chance here for creating new jobs, improving work prospects, extending the length of service for older workers and helping our numerous small and micro businesses to break into new national and international markets.

The first great challenge is that 60% of our existing workforce needs digital training. We know we cannot all be database designers but if every one of our businesses had digital skills it would give us a distinct market advantage and a more than realistic chance of attracting new investment into our region.

This in my opinion is a prize we can win if we adopt a concerted and collective approach.